46 The Potential to Contribute Much to Society | Jennifer Ackil

I am mindful of the fact that my daily interactions with students both in and out of the classroom play an important role in their development not only as scholars but also as thoughtful, balanced individuals with the potential to contribute much to society. As a psychologist, my courses are most obviously designed to provide students with the opportunities necessary for developing a mature understanding of the discipline. Even a casual observer would note that the readings I choose, the assignments I have created, and my high expectations for the students I teach are all intended to help them master course material as they work toward developing a comprehensive understanding of the field. Arguably of equal importance however, are the many more subtle objectives that I keep in mind and attempt to accomplish along the way. First, a primary aim of my teaching is to foster clear, objective thinking skills that are of value across the disciplines. While I emphasize these skills in all of my courses, my Cognitive Psychology course is ideally suited for emphasizing these skills in the context of the kind of interdisciplinary connections valued by our community. In the last several years this course has increasingly attracted students from a variety of disciplines across the College. This provides a natural avenue for examining the manner in which cognitive research can both inform and benefit from conversations and collaborations with those in other disciplines. Moreover, in this and other courses I am intentional about providing opportunities that challenge students to evaluate theories and ideas in light of empirical research findings and to discuss their ideas openly in class and in their written assignments. I hope that by discouraging the passive acceptance of facts and encouraging the open exchange of ideas from a variety of perspectives, students will develop as independent thinkers and skeptical consumers of information – skills that should serve them well throughout their lives.

Second, my courses are intended to reveal to students all of the possibilities of psychological science. While this may seem an obvious objective, I am acutely aware of the fact that most students come to Psychology courses with an extremely narrow view of the field. My experience has been that the vast majority of our majors enroll with the intent to learn the skills necessary for assisting others through counseling and therapy. While this is for many reasons a laudable goal, my courses necessarily force them to expand their view. I hope that those considering a career in psychology come to realize that the contributions they might ultimately make as psychological scientists may be as valuable and rewarding as those they might make as counselors and therapists. Emphasizing this possibility for women and members of underrepresented groups is especially important, as they seem to have a particular tendency to limit their choices in the field to clinical/care-giving roles. Remaining active as a scientist myself and thus, modeling this possibility is one way to expand this view. Providing opportunities for students to experience the excitement of scientific discovery also brings this possibility to life. Moreover, explicitly helping students to understand how psychological science enables individuals to make judgments that strengthen community and inform public policy is of benefit to us all. Sponsoring student internships and career explorations during January and during the regular semester has provided a natural opportunity for me to raise these issues with students. Integrating conversations about these issues in my classes provides another avenue and one that I look forward to expanding upon. Teaching a course on applied cognitive psychology that would explicitly focus on the pragmatic value of cognitive research and its potential to positively impact the greater community is something I am eager to explore.

Third, providing opportunities for students to engage in psychological science (both in and outside the classroom) benefits students beyond simply enhancing graduate school applications. In January 2004 I participated in a month long faculty group discussion organized by our Biochemistry colleague, Jeff Dahlseid, aimed at discussing the National Research Council’s book, How People Learn: Brian, Mind, Experience, and School. To have the opportunity to think and reflect with faculty across the College about the best practices to promote student learning was enjoyable and productive. Among other things, this discussion solidified my belief in the highly valuable and generalizable skills that students acquire through the process of research. Developing an understanding of and appreciation for the origin of knowledge, developing oral and written communication, learning to balance independent thinking with collaboration, and developing a tolerance for obstacles are among those that have the potential to serve them well in a variety of professional endeavors throughout their lives.

Fourth, much of the material in my courses calls for discussions of responsibility, ethics, and compassion for others. Whether students are conducting their own research in the upper level courses or simply reading about research in the introductory course, challenging them to think about these issues is an important exercise. What obligation do psychology scientists have to share their research findings with the public and how might this obligation best be met? What are the ethical implications of conducting research with human participants? How should psychological scientists weigh the benefits of research against any risks of participation? At various points in each course and in a variety of different ways, I provide opportunities for students to identify and wrestle with these kids of questions in an attempt to emphasize their responsibility not only as students of psychology, but as educated members of society. Moreover, many of the various research topics and psychological findings that we discuss in my courses (e.g., stereotypes, implicit racism, authority, false memory, biased reasoning) naturally elicit discussions of values. My hope is that providing students with opportunities to discuss these issues in the confines of our classroom encourages them to reflect upon and evaluate their own values and actions as they face relevant issues and situations throughout their lives.

Finally, I hope that students leave my courses with a desire for lifelong learning and a commitment to excellence in whatever they ultimately choose to pursue. Although it is difficult to assess the extent to which I am successful in this regard, the variety of students (e.g., psychology majors, non-majors, advisees) who consistently seek my input in discussions on a broad range of issues may be an indication that I am on the right track. Whereas these conversations frequently begin with students’ practical need to choose classes, discuss career paths, or request recommendations, they typically develop into more meaningful conversations that I hope lead students to consider their personal values, passions, and goals. I view these conversations as an important part of a liberal arts education and believe they are necessary for encouraging our students to consider their responsibility and potential as contributing members of society. Moreover, I am encouraged by student comments that go beyond mention of the course material that indicate a change in their approach and thinking. Though it is clear that most of the students I teach will not go on to become cognitive psychologists, I hope that my enthusiasm for the material in my courses and my passion for my own research will motivate them to continue their intellectual pursuits and inspire them to seek experiences in their lives that they will find equally as fulfilling.

Some Final Thoughts and Reflections on Promotion. Whereas the majority of this statement has highlighted my contributions and accomplishments thus far, it seems appropriate to end with a few brief thoughts on the contributions I might make in the future. As I look forward beyond my everyday responsibilities several things come to mind. First, beyond the teaching endeavors mentioned previously, I look forward to the possibility of becoming involved in the Curriculum II program. Having been invited to team teach the capstone course with a colleague in the humanities is a prospect to which I am looking forward both for the new challenge it will provide and for the opportunity to share psychological science with students in a new format. Moreover, I am hopeful that with the expected addition of a new tenure track cognitive psychologist will come flexibility in my teaching assignment that may open additional opportunities for new collaborative endeavors. Shared interests with my social psychologist colleague Dr. Marie Walker have afforded several collaborative opportunities in the past including a team taught January term course (Psychology and the Law) and a collaboration between students in our separate seminar courses (Dr. Walker’s seminar on The Self and my seminar on Autobiographical Memory). My interest in memory (autobiographical recollections, in particular)has also elicited informal conversations with history colleagues who share an interest in understanding how people reconstruct the past. These possibilities are intriguing to me personally and would provide another avenue that would strengthen my support of the College’s commitment to interdisciplinary learning.

Second, my program of research continues to raise as many questions as it answers. Thus, in addition the work already in preparation (as indicated in my vita), I have several projects in line. One of these will aim to further uncover the mechanisms responsible for the forced fabrication effect by examining more closely the consequences of participants’ resistance to fabricate misinformation. Including student collaborators in this project will continue to provide opportunities for them at all levels of psychological research. A second project aims to examine adult and children’s long-term retention of traumatic and nontraumatic experiences. Maintaining an active program of research is vital for satisfying my own personal curiosities and for fueling my interest in and passion for cognitive psychology. That my research has the advantage of continuing to provide collaborative opportunities with students that are mutually beneficial is particularly fortunate.

Finally, promotion to the rank of full professor brings not only recognition of one’s accomplishments, but the responsibility to be an active, engaged, and mindful leader both in one’s discipline and in the Gustavus community. Serving as a mentor and resource for less experienced faculty colleagues, and taking on additional leadership roles in the discipline, my department, and on committees across the College are among the more obvious steps toward meeting this obligation and I look forward to continuing my work to this end. Of equal importance however, is the responsibility to be vigilant as a leader “behind the scenes” by making sure the College upholds issues of justice and fairness for all members, but especially those in untenured or support positions who may as a consequence feel more vulnerable when expressing their views. Being aware of and committed to upholding these responsibilities is in keeping with the spirit of the Gustavus Mission and is necessary for insuring the continued well-being of the College.


Teaching, Scholarship, Service Copyright © 2012 by Faculty of Gustavus Adolphus College. All Rights Reserved.


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